Friday, September 26, 2014

Delusions of comfort: Will Modi's India look a more powerful neighbour in the eye?

By Swapan Dasgupta


The term “bamboo curtain” has today fallen into complete disuse. Yet, until the post-Mao Zedong succession struggle was conclusively resolved in favour of the reformist Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China was a closed society and, indeed, a mystery that professional China-watchers tried to solve with an imperfect mixture of information, ideology and conjecture.


One of the few foreigners who enjoyed privileged access to the Communist Middle Kingdom was the writer Han Suyin, the pen name of Elizabeth Comber, the daughter of a Hakka father and Belgian mother. Han Suyin was an incorrigible fellow traveller who combined her insights into Chinese society with a near-slavish adulation of the regime.


In 1979 or thereabouts, Han Suyin delivered a talk at—if my memory serves me right—London School of Economics. She spoke at length on how the perfidious Gang of Four, that included Mao’s ambitious widow Jiang Qing, had tried to hijack the legacy of the Great Helmsman and had been thwarted by the proverbial “great, glorious and correct” Communist Party of China. After the talk, an insolent student got up and reminded the great China expert of her earlier praise for the “revolutionary” qualities of precisely those individuals that were now being denounced as “counter-revolutionaries.” It was an awkward moment for Han Suyin and she tried to get out of a sticky situation by recalling some conversation with a wise Chinese peasant—the counterpart of the ubiquitous taxi driver favoured by foreign correspondents—who had warned her of the dodgy personality of Mao’s second wife.


The West Indian-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall used to remark that Communists never admit to being wrong: they merely travel from “correctness to correctness.” This was particularly true of the Sinophiles who doubled up as Sinologists.


In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when Maoism was both a political and fashion statement, the students of Contemporary China in Indian universities were forever told of the monumental achievements of the collectivisation process, the backyard foundries that had contributed to the exponential growth of steel production and the Great Leap Forward. A lot of time was devoted to deciphering Mao’s cryptic utterances such as “everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent” and “it is always darkest before it becomes totally black.” In hindsight, it seems bizarre that some of the most intelligent products of our universities were inspired by Mao to undertake vicious bouts of self-flagellation, all the time quoting the Chairman’s great advice: “To read too many books is harmful.” What was even more unpardonable was their state of hallucination was egged by on by the so-called China experts.


Contemporary research, based on a combination of archival research and Chinese self-realisation, has demonstrated the scale of the Chinese disaster under Mao. Reading the histories by scholars such as Frank Dikotter—Mao’s Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation—makes me wonder whether the “China experts” can ever be truly trusted to convey an accurate picture of events and trends behind the old “bamboo curtain.”


The issue arises in the context of the India visit of China’s President Xi Jinping and its immediate aftermath. In normal circumstances the visit would have been uneventful and routine had it not been for two factors.


First, it was preceded by the Indo-Japan bonhomie that was on display during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan. Modi’s stray comment about the pitfalls of “expansion” was quite rightly viewed as a reference to an over-assertive China. Read with China’s grave distrust of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to modify Japan’s post-war pacifism and build an indigenous defence capability, there were good reasons to believe that China would do its utmost to thwart any emerging Delhi-Tokyo-Canberra axis that would also have tacit US backing.


Secondly, unlike the erstwhile UPA Government that was forever trying to second-guess China and reacting with a spectacular measure of defensiveness, Modi reacted with great displeasure to the standoff in Chumar, along the Line of Actual Control. He is understood to have told President Xi that the much-touted economic cooperation and China’s assurance of $20 billion investment in India would not take off as long as border tensions persisted. Maybe Modi was throwing back at the China Xi’s assertion to the Military Commission in October last year that “core interests” would not be compromised for the sake of “development interests.”


Whatever the calculations behind India’s unexpected development of a spine, Xi had assured Modi that the People’s Liberation Army’s provocations would cease. But this assurance appears to have been greeted with either incomprehension or studied defiance by the local PLA commanders. Not only are tensions in Chumar persisting, matters have been complicated by Xi’s remarks to PLA commanders on September 22, immediately after his return from India.


The debate in India centres on which aspect of Xi’s message alludes to the India-China border tangle. Should New Delhi view the call for the PLA to be unquestioningly obedient to the political leadership as an indictment of those army commanders who had derailed his India visit? Alternatively, should the advice to the PLA to “improve… combat readiness and sharpen the ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology” be viewed as a veiled warning to India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam to desist from any anti-China alliance?


As with such cryptic remarks, no definite conclusions are possible. Unlike most “democratic” countries where decision-making is circumscribed by domestic pulls and pressures, the direction of Chinese nationalism is relatively less dependant on internal compulsions and guided essentially by calculations at the top. To argue that China would always shun a full-fledged, localised conflict because it values old-style economic hegemonism is only partly true.


Not since Beijing undertook economic reforms and out-performed the capitalists in their own game has it faced such wariness over its rise and rise. The benign view of an energetic China that prompts admiration in Europe and even the US is not so easily shared in Asia where China combines commerce with the threat of coercion. Even in Australia that had once embraced China exuberantly as its route into Asia, there is now a great deal of anxiety over the implications of an unchecked great power that doesn’t share the political and cultural assumptions of other open societies. Canberra’s endorsement of Japan’s re-militarisation and its decision to sell uranium to India can well be viewed as facets of contingency planning vis a vis China.


In this context, India appears as a soft target to China. Contrary to the Nehruvian myth about Asian solidarity, China’s present leadership and indeed its people view India with a mixture of contempt and condescension. This is a perception that neither Indian diplomacy nor Indian business has been able to meaningfully counter. On its part, the Indian government always pursued the line of least resistance in coping with China’s aggressive postures along the LAC. The capacity building exercise along the border that China has pursued with single-minded vigour has not been met by any worthwhile Indian response. The lack of serious intent in building up infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh even prompts the speculation whether the Indian establishment has mentally abdicated its responsibilities over that region.


The mystification of China and the creation of an intellectual fog around it by India’s small-scale China industry are, under the circumstances, understandable. Lacking the political will to look a more powerful neighbour in the eye—a hangover of the 1962 debacle—India has often used abstraction to obfuscate its denial of China’s harsh reality. Is Modi about to destroy this delusionary comfort zone? 

The Telegraph, September 26, 2014

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Falling star: Mamata rules but her halo is gone

By Swapan Dasgupta


Every government is periodically confronted with problems created by the swagger and reckless behaviour of its functionaries. However, when such events escalate into a full-blown crisis, it often symptomatic of a larger erosion of credibility. West Bengal is in the throes of such an experience.


Despite the saturation TV coverage in the Bengali channels and the heady middle class outrage, it may be more accurate to view the agitation centred on Kolkata’s Jadavpur University as a convulsion rather than a full-blown political crisis. With the Durga Puja holidays round the corner, it is likely that passions will subside street marches will be replaced by street revelry. Yet the impression of an unresponsive and insensitive administration is likely to persist.


It is astonishing that an incident that began with students demanding action against the molestation of a fellow student quickly escalated into a full-blown movement against the high-handedness of the ruling Trinamool Congress. What could have been handled with tact and sensitivity became, instead, yet another civil society-state confrontation. On a smaller scale, the battle-lines were reminiscent of the kerfuffle over Singur and Nandigram that destroyed the mighty Left Front in 2011.


Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s political vulnerability may well be overstated by those caught up in the immediacy of the latest turbulence to hit Bengal. However, even for a society where every facet of life is over-politicised, the mood in Kolkata is a curious mixture of conspiracy, disgust and expectancy. Coupled with the Chief Minister’s temperamental volatility and the reckless intemperate utterances of her colleagues, Bengal appears to have hit a political air-pocket yet again. The optimistic anticipation of “poriborton” that saw Didi win a landslide victory three summers ago has dissipated and been replaced by anger and resignation.


The impact of the CBI investigations into the Sarada scandal has contributed immeasurably towards eroding the credibility of the TMC dispensation. The overall impression of a bunch of scamsters throwing money extracted from gullible small investors to buy political and media protection has dented the reputation of Mamata as a leader who stood above Mammon. Individuals the Chief Minister had rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats are now hurling grave accusations at the entire TMC establishment. During this month’s by-election campaign, a BJP national office-bearer even attributed unwholesome motives to the Chief Minister’s five-day Singapore junket. Earlier, critics of Mamata would have questioned her political judgment, maybe even dubbed her “mad”, but no one doubted her integrity. With the Sarada scam and her less than forthright reaction to it, she appears to have lost her halo as a selfless, doughty crusader.


What should concern the Chief Minister is that tales of the apparent venality of the TMC have spilled over from the drawing rooms of Ballygunge and Alipore to the suburbs. From big businessmen to small-time entrepreneurs, the perennial complaint is one of extortion by the umpteen ‘syndicates’ run by TMC dadas, often in competition with each other. The complaint made by the authorities in Dhaka to New Delhi about Sarda money being used to fund the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and the questionable links of a TMC Rajya Sabha MP to radical Islamist groups have even highlighted to apparent disregard for national security. The Chief Minister may be unaware but the impression of a political dispensation operating as an extortion racket—with Robin Hood features—is slowly permeating downwards.


On its part, the TMC leadership believes that the talk of a downward slide in its fortunes is media-inspired alarmism. This belief isn’t without basis. The two by-elections in Kolkata’s Chowringhee and Dakshin Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district demonstrated three clear trends.


Firstly, there is now evidence to suggest that following its resounding win in the Lok Sabha poll of May 2014, the TMC hold over the state has increased exponentially. In the Chowringhee seat it wrested from the Congress, the TMC vote increased by a staggering 9.7 per cent between May and September 2014. In the border constituency of Basirhat Dakshin (held by the CPI(M) in 2011), the TMC vote rose by 12.1 per cent—a great performance that fell just short of the BJP. The disaggregated picture suggests that the TMC has made further inroads in rural Bengal and among Muslims.


Secondly, the by-poll results clearly reveal that the decline of the Left so evident in the general election is continuing at a very rapid pace. The CPI(M) lost its deposit in Chowringhee, polling 1,906 votes less than it did in May. However, in Basirhat Dakshin—a constituency evenly divided between the rural and the small town—its vote fell dramatically by 17,454 (8.4 per cent). Most important, the erstwhile CPI(M) transferred to the TMC and helped it reduce the BJP’s margin.


Finally, by just about holding on to the votes gained in the course of the Narendra Modi surge, overtaking the Congress in Chowringhee and winning the Basirhat Dakshin seat, the BJP has positioned itself as the principal opposition to the TMC. Yet, it has a very long way to go before it can emerge as an alternative. Its support still lacks social depth, is extremely patchy in rural Bengal and lacks a robust leadership to counter Mamata’s charisma. The BJP is over-dependent on spontaneity. Its most noticeable gain is in the inroads it has made in the urban clusters that could stand it in good stead in the municipal polls next year.


There is a political vacuum in West Bengal caused by the decimation of the Left. For the moment, the TMC is filling the void—which may explain Mamata’s apparent unconcern with the vocal opposition to her erratic governance. West Bengal politics is in a state of transition and may be marked by increased tensions on the ground. 

Hindustan Times, September 25, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dynasty's ruthless land-grab in Lutyens' Delhi

By Swapan Dasgupta



A few passage from All These Years (Penguin Books, 1991), Raj Thapar’s candid insider account of court life in the age of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi may be relevant in today’s irreverent age when an outsider Prime Minister is questioning the fundamentals of entitlement.


“It was within ten days of Nehru’s death that Indira rang Romesh [Thapar] one morning, sounding desperate. Meher Chand Khanna, the then Housing Minister, had apparently sent his minions to ask her if they could remove the furniture and that she plan to vacate the [Teen Murti] House as soon as possible. She was alarmed. ‘What shall I do?’ she asked, almost in tears. He told her to sit tight, take her time, and he would see that no one dare throw her out…”


“Teen Murti House seemed to have a life quite independent of the occupants. Rumour had it that Shastri’s wife declined to use it as a residence because Nehru’s ghost must haunt the rambling structure since the kriya ceremony had not been performed and his spirit not been released in the way it should have been…No way could Shastri be persuaded to step into a defiled space. It was not a question of contaminating his soul but of putting an uncertainty over his future, his political future.”


“Meanwhile Indira called a meeting of a hundred citizens, from the big industrialists downwards, to form the Nehru Memorial Trust. She co-opted Romesh on to the panel of original trustees…The Fund was created, Teen Murti was dedicated to the nation and the ‘people of India’ and new expansion plans were put into operation…”


What Raj Thapar, with a charming measure of feigned innocence, described in her memoirs was a well-executed and ruthless land-grab operation. First, Indira Gandhi is tearfully outraged that she is asked to vacate a public building that served as Nehru’s official residence for 17 years. Encouraged by her courtiers, she is determined to not lose control of a property she now views as an inheritance.


Therefore, after seeking sympathy that naturally comes to any family after a bereavement, her supporters whisper that the un-refined Lal Bahadur Shastri is not fit to occupy a place that housed the great Nehru. The point of this psychological warfare is two-fold. Shastri must be intimidated into believing that it would be sacrilegious for him to move into Teen Murti. In the process, there is a distinction made between Teen Murti House, the Prime Minister’s official residence, and Teen Murti House, the residence of Nehru. Once Shastri is bullied into not moving into Teen Murti, it loses its undefined status as the PM’s official residence. It comes to be associated solely with Nehru.


The dynasty then moves fast. It sets up the mandataory trust, arm-twists the industrialists it otherwise despises into making handsome contributions and creates the conditions for Teen Murti House to become a family shrine. True, Indira didn’t get to live in Teen Murti House—I guess she didn’t factor the possibility of her becoming PM in less than two years—but at least a principle was established: the dynasty doesn’t relinquish real estate that easily.


A casual look at the map would indicate the extent of land-grab. Teen Murti houses the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that is nominally under the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India. It was deemed sufficiently important for the Congress dispensation for its tenured Director to be appointed in the interregnum between the last date of polling and the declaration of results in May 2014. The Director is no doubt an eminent historian but the manner of his appointment was distinctly dodgy.


Then there is Indira Gandhi Memorial at the junction of Safdarjung Road and Akbar Road—two Lutyen’s bungalows that also doubled up as the unofficial headquarters of the Congress(T) in the last years of the Narasimha Rao government, before Sonia assumed charge of the party. There is also the single bungalow office of the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Trust on Willingdon Crescent.


The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation is located on Raisina Road, on premises that were initially given to the Congress to use as its permanent headquarters. The Congress remains exactly where it was in a spacious Akbar Road bungalow but the new building has been transferred to the dynasty’s trust. The same fate would have befallen the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts that had proposed Sonia Gandhi for a lifelong role. But with a change of government, this institution can perhaps be salvaged and made to play the role it was set up for.


And this is not to forget the case of Herald House, the prime property on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg that now serves as a Passport Office. The irony of the government paying rent to a family-controlled Trust that secured government land at subsidised rate for the ostensible purpose of bringing out a publication is inescapable.


Maybe someone should do an audit of the value of the real estate in Delhi that is under the direct or indirect control of the Gandhi family. The nation, it would seem, owes this family everything and it has repaid the debt by entrusting prime real estate to institutions set up by them. And this does not include the government-provided residences in Lutyens’ Delhi—some, no doubt, legitimate—to all of Nehru’s remaining heirs.


Is it any wonder that Ajit Singh, the son of Charan Singh, believes he is being short-changed by a government that views government buildings as a hotel—where you check in but must also check out? The Modi government is being pilloried because it doesn’t view the state as private property. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 21, 2014


Friday, September 12, 2014

Scotland: The Division Bell

By Swapan Dasgupta


External Affairs Minister is by no means the only ‘foreigner’ to view the possibility of a possible secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom with a measure of disbelief. The dissolution of long-established national boundaries has invariably been preceded by civil strife and bloodshed: Biafra, Bangladesh, East Timor and South Sudan being recent examples. Where separation has been relatively peaceful, though not necessarily devoid of bitterness, there has been a near-unequivocal assertion of the popular will. Ukraine, often regarded as the alter ego of Russia, for example, broke away from the Soviet-established ‘Union’ in 1991, after nearly 88 per cent of its citizens voted for independence.


Going by the opinion polls, the referendum in Scotland on September 18 is likely to be much more fiercely contested. Some six months ago, the likelihood of Scotland voting for the ‘independence’ that the Scottish National Party sought was remote. However, recent polls suggest that the SNP has successfully closed the gap and that the Yes vote could even enjoy a slim majority. Earlier, the British media was referring to SNP leader Alex Salmond’s foolhardly gamble; now they are talking about the disarray in the No camp with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown undertaking a last-minute rescue act.


Since much of the debate over Scottish identity and its supposed incompatibility with British identity centres on readings of history, it is tempting to compare the panic that has overtaken the establishment in London with the panic of 1745, the last occasion when the creation of a independent Scotland seemed possible.


In that year, the ‘Young Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Stuart King James II—also, simultaneously, King of Scotland—who had been ousted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for his Catholicism, landed in western Scotland from France with a few hundred loyalists. Initially, very much like today’s No campaign, the Hanoverian court didn’t take the threat very seriously. However, after Edinburgh fell and the Jacobite army started moving into England that panic set in. The rich merchants of London, fearful of their future, poured in finances to prop up an English army with formidable artillery power. When the two armies met at Culloden, there was a one-sided massacre of the Jacobite army, made up in the main of Scottish clans from the Highlands.


It is possible that had the vain and dissolute Young Pretender confined his ambitions to Scotland and not ventured into England, the political union forged by the accession of James I to the English throne would have not endured for four centuries. But regardless of the romantic myths around the Jacobites, the exiled Stuarts never enjoyed total support within Scotland. Just as the No campaign, the English army at Culloden had a large contingent of Scots.


Yet, received history doesn’t depend on the actual complexities of what really took place but more on how subsequent generations believe events unfolded. The perception that Scotland always got a raw deal from England and was the victim of intense cultural condescension have struck deep roots among resident Scots. This may have been truer of the Irish—forever the butt of ‘Paddy’ jokes—than the Scots. Yet the stereotype of the rustic Scot, so well portrayed through the eyes of the opinionated Rhodesian mining engineer Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s best-selling The Thirty-Nine Steps (later immortalised on celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock) somehow persisted.


For a lot of us, born in the aftermath of Empire, the British Isles was never the United Kingdom: it was always England, and that included Scotland. At the same time, even till the mid-Seventies, travelling to Scotland (Edinburgh apart) was akin to travelling to the ‘Continent’—a place that was different. Sometimes the experience fitted the stereotype. I recall a visit to a remote village in Skye in 1979 and being plied with drink by an overwhelmed local in a pub. It seems he had served in India during the War and I was the first Indian he had encountered since being demobbed more than three decades ago. An Indian face being a novelty in the late-1970s would have been unimaginable in any other part of the UK.


In pure historical terms, however, the notion of Scotland being left behind by Great Britain was pure fiction. The British Empire was the source of unparalleled prosperity at home. However, the plethora of opportunities that the far-flung possessions accorded to the peoples was not confined to England. The Empire, and certainly in India, was in many respects a Scottish Empire and even the Scottish Enlightenment was underwritten by Britain’s thriving overseas trade. From the “devils in skirts” who brought terror to the natives during the suppression of the 1857 revolt—hilariously caricatured by that great slapstick comedy Carry on up the Khyber—to the Scottish stranglehold over the boxwalla community of Calcutta, Scotland benefitted disproportionately from the Empire and, by implication, the Union.


It was Scotland’s inability to retain its competitive edge in the aftermath of Empire that began the process of disillusionment with Westminster. Scotland, in particular, felt the pain of Margaret Thatcher’s realignment of the British economy most acutely. By the mid-1980s, with the possible exception of Edinburgh, the scenes in urban Scotland often resembled the gloom and doom of the post-1929 Depression. Before its dramatic facelift in the Blair years, Glasgow was a distinctly riotous and even dangerous city at night.


Anger against a government shouldn’t, ideally, translate into a larger anger against an entire political dispensation. However, the electoral geography of the UK carried its own lessons. Scotland disavowed the Conservative Party quite emphatically after 1979 whereas southern England embraced it. With the Labour defeat in 2010, the perception grew in Scotland that the region had been permanently disenfranchised. This was untrue since the Scottish Assembly enjoyed considerable discretion in determining government expenditure and, in any case, Scotland’s government expenditure was always significantly higher than its revenue collection. The rest of UK was, in effect, subsidising Scotland.


Unfortunately, politics doesn’t depend on cold facts. The consummate politician that he is, Alex Salmond has been successful in converting the anger against the belt-tightening approach of the Cameron government into a larger revolt against Westminster. The anti-English undercurrent that used to surface at football matches and over the flying of the Union Jack has found a new focus with the achche din of independence.


I am on of those who feel that the last-minute panic over an uncertain future may actually see the wavering voters opt for the status quo—what with the promise of even greater devolution. However, just in case cussedness prevails, Scotland will provide a classic case study of how the clever manipulation of history and loss of British romanticism under a contrived multicultural dispensation destroyed a political arrangement that many of us believed would endure indefinitely. If Scotland falls off the map of the UK, there will be an immediate knock-on effect in Northern Ireland—a part of the UK that was emotionally abandoned by England after the Good Friday agreement of 1998. I don’t believe that we are witnessing the last gasp of the “green and pleasant land” that is England. But we could be experiencing the formal announcement of Britain’s loss of political power, a process that began in 1939 and whose first casualty was the British Empire.


Regardless of the September 18 verdict, Britain will have to redefine itself—just as Germany did after the loss of territory that followed the defeat in 1945—as a creative zone that is at the same time proud of its cultural moorings. Maybe there could be a happy ending in adversity. 

The Telegraph, September 12, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Abe-Modi bromance goes beyond trade talks

By Swapan Dasgupta


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mischievous aside in Tokyo about “secular” critics at home questioning his gift of the Bhagavad Gita to Emperor Akihito wasn’t out of place in Japan. His hugely successful five-day visit to Japan was mainly centred on the promotion of India as a manufacturing hub and interlocking the two countries in a larger strategic dialogue. However, what added an extra zing was the underlying convergence in the political approaches of Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


It is instructive to recall that prior to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin emerging as the principal rogue leader of a ‘normal’ country—Syria, Iraq and the Caliphate are thought to be beyond the pale—that position had been occupied by Abe. Just as the entire liberal establishment of the West had agonised over the horrendous implications of an India under the ‘majoritarian’ Modi, they had earlier rung alarm bells over Abe’s supposed bid to rekindle militaristic Japanese nationalism.


In a quirky process of ideological realignment, the anti-Abe clamour was joined by China, a country that is otherwise careful to maintain its distance from the internal politics of other countries. It is no surprise that the state-controlled Chinese media has debunked the idea of an Indo-Japan ‘united front’ as “crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising Beijing.”


As someone who has been at the receiving end of cosmopolitan derision for insisting that a modern, indeed, global India has to be rooted in traditional values and cultures, and that social harmony necessitates national pride, Modi has reason to be sympathetic to Abe’s plight. The Japanese PM who got a resounding mandate on the promise to extricate Japan from a period of prolonged stagnation is also committed to reworking the political settlement imposed on Japan by the occupation forces after 1945. Why this right should be contested seven decades after the World War is bewildering.



Abe is seeking to reverse Japan’s constitutional commitment to pacifism by re-building a national army for the ‘self-defence’ of the islands. India is an important partner in this process as is Australia. Interestingly, an increasingly beleaguered US has shed its objections to Abe’s “active pacifism” because of its growing inability to undertake the global responsibilities it assumed during the Cold War. The only real elephant in the room is, quite predictably, China that nurtures a visceral distaste of anything remotely resembling Japanese self-assertion. Like the patronising Charles De Gaulle, Beijing would rather keep alive the stereotype of the Japanese as “transistor salesmen”.


The second feature of the Abe project has been painted—in language familiar to India’s chattering classes—as “divisive” and “polarising.” The post-war settlement, apart from disbanding the military, led to Japan’s defeated leadership accepting the downgrading of the Shinto faith and adopting a school curriculum that promoted collective self-flagellation for the sins of militarism and Emperor worship. As a nation, Japan appears to have accepted apologia as its national creed with, many believe, ominous consequences.


There are undeniably facets of Japan’s past that invite unease. But that is true for almost all countries without exception. However, what is unacceptable is that 69 years after the world’s greatest weapons of mass destruction were tested on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is obliged to persist with a history written by the victors of that war. Western liberals have teamed up with China’s Red nationalists to question the right of Japan to honour the souls of those who died for the Emperor—then considered the personification of the nation. China stopped within an inch of severing diplomatic ties with Japan after former Prime Minister Koizumi made annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo—a temple that blends national honour and faith.


Maybe Modi should have visited Yasukuni but not out of a desire to score a point against China. He would have paid tribute to those Japanese martyrs who also died for the freedom of India. He would have witnessed Japan’s tribute to the Indian judge who contested the principle of victors’ justice. Equally, and in the context of the proposed monument in Delhi, he would have imbibed the significance of crafting an inseparable link between a martyr’s memorial and the national ethos. 

Sunday Times of India, September 7, 2014



NaMo scripting real change in the way we approach politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi have gone on national TV to address school children on Guru Divas or, if you so prefer, Teacher’s Day? The answer to this seemingly innocuous but inevitably politicised question will naturally depend on who you ask. 

To parents who see school education as the cumbersome waiting period before a child gets into an American university and life in the First World, Modi’s interaction was simply a waste of time. After all, as a Modi-hater tweeted, why clutter a child’s mind with politics? In any case, the sceptics will pronounce, what worthwhile message can a neta—and one who didn’t go to Cambridge like Chacha Nehru and Rahul baba—deliver to our young citizens? The more paranoid ones will perhaps go to the extent of describing the entire exercise as RSS-inspired “brainwashing” of impressionable minds. 

I suspect the answers will be a little different if you were to ask members of the ‘aspirational classes’—the ones who set aside a disproportionate share of their annual income for their children’s education. They would perhaps feel a certain pride if their child’s Kendriya Viddyalaya had been selected for the national hook-up. And, if by chance, their son or daughter had been pre- selected to ask one of those (no doubt rehearsed and somewhat stylised) questions to the PM, they will be walking on air for the next three months. 

Yes, Modi’s televised Guru Diwas interaction did trigger a controversy. Most things Modi does—including beating the drum in Tokyo and gifting the Bhagwad Gita to the Japanese Emperor—becomes a subject of some acrimony. That’s something Modi will have to live with and I daresay he actually enjoys the toofan he generates. But political posturing apart, was the Guru Diwas engagement something worthwhile. And should it be repeated next year? 

My answer to both questions is a categorical Yes. 

Leaving aside the presumptuousness of the assertion that no PM apart from Jawaharlal Nehru has the right and the credentials to engage with India’s school goers, the point to note is that the larger message of Modi was laudable. 

First, he tried to impress upon the children the importance of belonging to a national community. To my mind, however, there is something quite appealing in every ( or, at least, most) school children sharing a common experience in an atmosphere of collective unison. There is a big difference between children watching Modi’s interaction from home and them experiencing it as part of a collective. The extension of the collegiate spirit into a national spirit is what the programme intended. To that extent, it will form an important part of a child’s larger school experience. Indeed, next year Modi should endeavour to have the interaction outside Delhi, maybe at a school in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Secondly, much of what Modi said was devoted to values and national priorities: having a lifelong respect for teachers, motivating parents into sending girls to school, developing the reading habit, mastering all available technology, saving power and avoiding waste, mastering skills and, most important, enjoying the exhilaration of being young. The term ‘value education’ has been rubbished by the votaries of progressive education who believe that children mustn’t be taught, only encouraged to discover. With his formidable national standing and political clout, Modi has attempted to link good schooling with good citizenship. 

Finally, in attaching so much importance to Guru Diwas, Modi sought to confer on school teachers a large measure of professional pride. Yes, teachers have a litany of complaints—some legitimate and others that smack of a trade union mentality. In time the government will have to persuade state governments and private institutions to be more mindful of their legitimate needs. But this will be enormously facilitated if the old-fashioned respect for the guru becomes the social consensus once again. 

In the process of easing himself into his prime ministerial responsibilities, Modi, it would seem, is conferring on politics an additional dimension. Right from the Red Fort speech on August 15 to his intervention last Friday afternoon, he has been stressing aspects of governance that appear to have bypassed India’s political class. According to conventional logic, the construction of toilets (especially for women), the enrolment of girls in schools, and the promise to clean up India’s physical space don’t constitute politics. Modi is borrowing a leaf from Mahatma Gandhi’s enlargement of the political space through the “constructive programme” and positioning himself as something more than just a political leader engaged in competitive electoral politics. 

The transition of Modi in less than a year has been remarkable. In September 2013, he was just the first among equals in the BJP; by end-May of this after his resounding electoral victory he became the unchallenged leader of his party and coalition; by the end of 2014, he would have transformed himself into a PM who is also the country’s acknowledged leader. What we are witnessing is not merely the transformation of Narendra Modi but a decisive shift in the meaning of political leadership. The Modi who will present himself for re-election in 2019 will be a very different man than the individual who was the candidate for the top job in 2014. The change promises to be very exciting. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 7, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Our real friends

By Swapan Dasgupta


Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been judged harshly by his contemporaries for his unending failures to protect the integrity of his office. In plain English, he was too often a pushover, succumbing to pressures from the dynastic owners of the Congress Party and their unpalatable representatives. However, as one of his most trusted aides once revealed in an indiscreet moment some time ago, there were odd occasions when the economist-politician did take a stand—maybe because it didn’t involve the Gandhis.


The occasion was the choice of chief guest for the 2014 Republic Day functions, the final one of Singh’s long stint as Prime Minister. Singh, who had quite rightly detected the growing opportunities in Indo-Japan bilateral relations, wanted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a known friend of India, to be the chief guest. This was bitterly opposed by a section of the foreign policy establishment. The opposition (or so I was informed) was very strongly articulated by the then National Security Adviser who was said to be a veteran China hand. In the context of India, a China expert didn’t translate as Sinologists; it implied a Sinophile. Menon, it was said, had an instinctive knack of second-guessing the mandarins in Beijing.


China, the battalion of Sinophiles in Delhi argued, would not be amused by the invitation to Abe. Apart from everything else, Abe had by then developed a formidable reputation as a nationalist who played the so-called anti-China card even more deftly than the enigmatic former Prime Minister Koizumi. Much of Beijing’s anger stemmed from Koizumi and Abe’s inability to grasp the “correct” history of Japanese militarism prior to 1945. China was particularly incensed over the presence of Japan’s top leadership at events to commemorate all Japanese war heroes since the Meiji Restoration at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. The shrine incorporated the spirits of all those (by name) who had died for the Emperor in battle. These included 18 Class A “war criminals” who had been convicted and executed by the International War Crimes Tribunal set up after Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.


It is to Singh’s credit that he overruled the objections and invited Abe for the Republic Day celebrations. In his final months Singh wasn’t able to achieve anything substantial but he at least laid the foundation of robust bilateral relations that Prime Minister Modi was able to build on during his recent, hugely successful visit to Japan.   


China’s official reaction to Modi’s visit and his close personal rapport with Abe has been understandably guarded. With President Xi Jinping scheduled to visit India later this month, Beijing—which always understands the virtues of patience—is unwilling to say anything that will sour the mood in India. At the same time, the state-controlled media has not missed the opportunity to take pot shots at both Japan and India—and certainly not after Modi’s snide reference, in a response to a student’s question on China, to a 18th century “imperialist mindset” that still prevails. The state-run Global Times, for example, described Japan’s purported attempt to forge a united front against China as a “crazy fantasy”. An article suggested—perhaps not inaccurately—that “Modi is more intimate to Tokyo emotionally. Therefore…he embraces some nationalist sentiments against China.”


These may indicate China’s early misgivings of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia but they don’t as yet suggest that Beijing has decided to travel down a hostile path vis a vis Delhi. There may be a belief in Beijing that any leverage Japan might gain with its enhanced economic partnership with India can be neutralised by even more generous Chinese offerings. This buy-the-country approach has worked partially in Sri Lanka and large chunks of Africa but it is seen to be floundering in large parts of South-east Asia.


A section of Indian business may be attracted by the charms of cheap Chinese imports and very competitive financing offered by China but these are offset by the larger threats posed by China. In simple terms, China has not made any secret of its desire to be the hegemonic power in Asia. It may respect national sovereignty but that comes with a larger political cost: tacitly acknowledging China’s dominance in Asia. Japan has realised this to its cost, as have countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Australia. Many of these countries now look up to India as an important countervailing force to China.


The real challenge for India is to balance a very legitimate and growing business relationship with China with wariness over its larger strategic designs. Japan has offered India defence collaboration and economic partnership for the sake of a loose alliance aimed at keeping Asia outside the control of a dominant power. In the coming days, the visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot is likely to revive the old idea of a Australia-Japan-India trilateral arrangement, maybe as a return gift for a nuclear agreement and supply of uranium. Should India fall back on some mythical Non-Alignment-2 that translates into a policy of appeasement of China? Or should the Modi government also draw a few new red lines in its relationship with the great power across the Himalayas?


There are no simple answers. At present India has lost the capacity to make a meaningful decision that can withstand sustained pressure. Its economy is yet to go on full steam and its defence preparedness is non-existent. The Modi government’s main priority must be to enhance India’s national capacity, using all available opportunities at its disposal. This could even mean playing limited footsie with China and keeping uninhibited cohabitation with Japan and Australia for another day. Of course, the risk is that China won’t hesitate to encash its many IOUs in India to force Modi into acknowledging China’s titular supremacy. Recall how easily the CPI(M) teamed up with the Congress after the 1998 Pokhran-2 tests.


Some deft diplomacy is the order of the day. But let there be no confusion over the fact that a menacing China isn’t in India’s national interests. By comparison, neither Japan nor Australia has agendas inimical to India. On the contrary, with a weakened US, their friendship acquires greater meaning. 

Asian Age, September 5, 2014

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